The Hungry Goblin – John Dickson Carr (1972)

HungryGoblinAdmit it, you didn’t see this one coming.  No one expects The Hungry Goblin.  Neither, truthfully, did I.  After all, this is a difficult book to track down.  Well, not exactly difficult – you can pick up a copy on eBay fairly easily if you’re willing to drop a decent amount of money.  But why would you?  There seems to be a unanimous agreement that this is hands down the weakest of all 70+ novels published by John Dickson Carr.  The book stands as a punchline in many a clever joke in online discussions of Carr’s career.

A strong and prolific writer throughout his life, common consensus is that Carr’s talent waned in his later years.  We could do entire posts debating when the shift happened, but an oft-mentioned landmark is the stroke he suffered in 1963.  From this point forward, he published only six books, one of which I’ve read – Panic in Box C.  Although nowhere near the height of Carr’s work, it was an enjoyable read and featured a mystery that was better than its reputation suggested.

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Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“In all ages, everything changes.  Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change.  But fear is the same.  Only fear is the same.”

FearIsTheSameThe only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale.  It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category).  In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.

Yes, you read that correctly, time travel.  If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.  Whoa there, it’s alright.  I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court.  The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow.  Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so.  The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right?  Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on.  Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.

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The Demoniacs

demoniacsIt dawned on me recently that it had been a while since I read a historical Carr novel.  In an attempt to draw out my remaining Fell and Merrivale library, why not reach into the author’s unique backlog of stories of the past?  My experience with the sub-genre has been limited so far, but I’ve learned it’s something to be savored.  In my two prior encounters – Fire, Burn and The Witch of the Low Tide – Carr utilizes tomes of research to layer the stories with historical nuances.  While The Witch of the Low Tide is a more conventional impossible crime novel slathered in details of the past, Fire, Burn is more of a historical novel that just so happens to include a mystery.  In both cases, you’re in for a treat – you may come for the standard Carr puzzle, but you walk away wrapped up in a certain sense of time and place.

Where to go next?  The Bride of Newgate lured me with the promise of an intriguing plot, but I figured I’d go with a title that flies more under the radar.  Out of several candidates I settled on The Demoniacs, mainly because I knew nothing about it.

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The Witch of the Low Tide

witchofthelowtideMy encounter with Fire, Burn – one of Carr’s historical works, set in 1829 – emboldened me in a way.  Up to then, I had intended to avoid the historical books, under the admittedly uninformed assumption that they wouldn’t provide what I was looking for in a Carr story.  The assumption strikes me as odd in retrospect – why would an impossible crime set in the 1930’s thrill me so much more than an impossible crime set in the nineteenth century?

For one, there is a different degree of removal.  Although most “modern” Carr books took place over 70 years ago, the 30’s and 40’s still muster a basic skeleton of familiarity to this day.  The 1800’s?  People in powered wigs or something like that…

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Fire, Burn

fireburnTrapped in time, a detective from the 1950s struggles to make sense of the world when he finds himself in 1820’s London.  In charge of London’s fledgling police force, he applies his knowledge of modern forensic science to solve a seemingly impossible crime.

It is only out of my own sheer stupidity that I read this book.  My intended target was The Burning Court, which is commonly held to be one of Carr’s best.  Perhaps it was the reference to flame in the title, or maybe it was the knowledge that The Burning Court involved murders from past centuries.  I was about 1/3 of the way through when it dawned on me that I had made a mistake.  And what a fortunate mistake it was.  No, Fire, Burn doesn’t reach the heights of The Burning Court, the later of which I read immediately after.  Rather, my pleasant error led me to part of Carr’s catalogue that I wouldn’t have touched for a long time – the historical novel.

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